Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Progressive Mutiny on the Good Ship California


Jerry Brown.  Philosopher.  Seer.  Pragmatic progressive.

This is how LA Times columnist George Skelton appears to see California’s Once and Once Again Governor in his most recent column wherein he describes “an escalating war over taxes”.  “Gov. Brown”, he notes, “saw it coming a year ago”.  What he means is that, decades after the war began, and years after most Californians were aware that the legacies of Proposition 13—a logically-bankrupt anti-tax populism on the one hand, and minority rule on the other—were destroying our state’s civil society, the Governor woke up and spoke some Latin.  Bellum ominum contra omnes”, to be precise, as quoted by Skelton, or “a war of all against all”.  And the columnists swooned accordingly

Skelton writes, “Neither the Democratic governor nor practically anyone else foresaw the war being launched from the left by forces that normally would line up with him as allies—by so-called progressives and fellow crusaders for education”.  My gripes with this line of logic are legion, but I have to start somewhere.

Firstly, the ‘so-called progressives’ label...  Brown has never been much of a progressive.  His sole progressive credential, as he repudiated his father’s social democratic vision of California, was his environmentalism.  But Brown never articulated, no less acted on, anything resembling a systematic progressive vision for the state.  The real progressives are those who are defending California’s schools and universities, not—as Brown has been doing—eroding them (he probably has no desire to erode them, but he has taken a series of incredibly stupid and short-sighted decisions that made anything else unlikely).

Next: the ‘war’, if that’s the way you want to characterise it, is nothing new.  California’s Republican Party has increasingly become the preserve of some of the most right-wing ideologues in the country, economic fundamentalists who are on an pledge-taking, anti-tax crusade that has as its aim the dismantling of California’s public sphere and the ‘liberation’ of its citizens from all of those pesky things like state-subsidised universities, affordable community colleges, healthcare and welfare for the poor, the regulation of pollution, the maintenance of state parks, quality pre-K to 12 education, and so on. 

For years now, the Republicans have been launching assault after assault on California’s public sphere and using the advantages that come from minority rule (it gives them an incredible amount of power, but they don’t have to take responsibility for how they wield that power) to create a corporate welfare system that worries more about industries’ bottom lines than it does the good of Californians.  And still Skelton feels able to claim that progressives have launched this ‘war’.

His one defence is that he has decontextualised the latest battle about revenue for education from the longer history of which it is a part.  In that respect, it’s true: Brown is without the traditional allies of Democratic Governors.  But the mutiny on the part of progressives is one of Brown’s own making.  Umpteen commentators decried Brown’s lackadaisical gubernatorial campaign in 2010, his own idiotic ‘no taxes’ pledge, and his truly inexplicable misreading of the climate in the Republican Party (it remains incredible to me that Brown believed he could get them on-board with his tax plan during 2011—the only explanation I can come up with is that he felt that he needed to go through the motions, but indulging fanatics at the expense of California’s public is no less reprehensible than miscalculation).  But the man who is looking like California’s very own Don Quixote sat in his tent like some myopic Machiavelli, reading the runes and fiddling with pigeon entrails while his mystified supporters muttered mutinously outside. 

Those supporters waited.  And waited.  And waited still longer for the Governor to get his act together.  Brown, as Skelton notes, may have “predicted [last March] the consequences of Republicans not providing the necessary two-thirds legislative majority to place his then-tax proposal on the June ballot”, but anyone who’d been reading the news in the last five years could have told him that the budget has long been the site of a mad scramble by interests across the state, and that the Governor’s ill-judged effort was doomed to failure—and a very costly failure it’s been.  And now Skelton has the temerity to accuse those supporters of launching this war of “all against all” in which the only thing we know for certain is that “the loser will be the people of California”. 

It is only logical that, eventually, Brown’s supporters would have lost patience with his sorry efforts and launched campaigns of their own.  And it’s not entirely surprising that they’re unwilling to back down in favour of Brown’s initiative (Skelton approvingly quotes SEIU California head as referring to Brown as “the adult in the room), because if he campaigns for it with the same apathetic indifference that he’s approached most big causes (aside from his own political career, that is), it’s likely doomed to failure. 

Brown is not, and never has been, a “crusader for public education”, as Skelton calls him.  He’s always been a minimalist, who pioneered the strategy of inaction, whereby he placated the media with gnomic pronouncements, the public with spectacular gestures of thrift and ostentatious contempt for the trappings of power, and his supporters with the fact that at least he wasn’t a Republican. 

Where Skelton is right is in his analysis of the consequences of Brown’s ineptitude.  If there are three tax measures on the ballot, none, as a matter of common sense, is likely to succeed.  Then Brown’s strategy of making Californians needlessly take their harsh medicine (he could have been campaigning for an initiative back in 2010 when he was running for Governor instead of wasting two years) until they came to their senses, will have failed.*  We’ll be in for yet another round of cuts that will further dismantle our public sector, further hurt the health and well-being of the most marginal in our society, and further undercut the prospects of California’s future generations who are depending on our schools and universities. 

The beneficiaries will be the free market Ayatollahs in the California Republican Party, their corporate handlers, and the generations which, having taken all they’ve needed from our state’s public institutions, having reaped the benefits from still-earlier generations’ investments, are now prepared to foreclose opportunities for those who follow them so that they can live that much more comfortably. 

So the war cries that are ringing around California at the moment are ‘thoughtlessness’, ‘selfishness’ and ‘ignorance’.  It is a debate between those who believe in the power of public institutions to enhance people’s lives and well-being, and those who believe in the morality of a marketplace skewed in favour of the wealthy.  It is a debate that has been taking place for years in California, but which has proved indecisive thanks to the entrenchment of minority rule.  It is a debate which will not be concluded, or even satisfactorily addressed by any of the tax measures that might make it into November’s ballot, so systemic and structural is California’s democratic deficit.  But for this particular battle, shaping up to be very costly to the schools and universities that do so much good for so many Californians, Jerry Brown’s own miscalculations and inaction provided the spark.

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* I’ll admit that my confidence in Californians’ abilities to invest any amount of time in understanding basic cause and effect in their political structure is pretty low.  Barry Keene accurately wrote that the public “tie the hands of legislative representatives by initiatives, then complain that legislators are acting as if their hands are tied, then punish them by tying their hands tighter” (Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, ed. R Jeffrey Lustig, 224).

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